HONG KONG—Labor unrest in China's factories could reignite at any time, according to a new report which says workers have been left out in the cold by a closed-circuit system that denies them the right to argue with their employers.
The Hong Kong-based China Labor Bulletin (CLB) said in a report that a recent bid by Hong Kong factory owners to block new laws in the manufacturing heartland of neighboring Guangdong province could push labor relations to the breaking point again.
"The reaction in Hong Kong to the collective bargaining regulations has been huge," said labor rights activist Zou Xingtong, who took part in a protest earlier this month against the lobbying action by industrial groups.
"As soon as the draft law was made available, they did everything they could to block it," he said.
CLB said that the new Guangdong regulations could indeed open the door to worker participation in negotiations, if they are passed into law and properly implemented.
But it warned in its report, titled "Swimming against the tide: How the government has tried to control labor conflicts in China," that more trouble is likely on the way.
"If that door is closed or blocked by management, government or the official trade union, workers will quickly become disillusioned," it said.
"[They will] almost certainly revert to the now tried and tested pattern of wildcat strikes and demonstrations in a bid to get what they want," the report said.
Guangdong has been rocked this year by strikes, protests, and worker suicides, and the government is increasingly anxious to stave off further unrest.
But amid intense lobbying from employers, Guangdong lawmakers eventually struck out a clause allowing for the democratic election of workers’ bargaining representatives.
Pressure from the Hong Kong business lobby also succeeded in taking the bill off the agenda for the 21st meeting of the Guangdong Provincial People’s Congress at the end of September.
"The government sought to retain its control over labor relations but, in the end, effectively ceded control to the employers," CLB's report said.
Party plenum highlight
Labor relations were highlighted as an area of concern in a recent top-level meeting of Chinese ruling Communist Party, amid fears that growing social unrest could loosen the Party's grip on power.
According to a communique issued this week, officials should work to "promote employment and harmonious labor relations, to reasonably adjust income distribution, to increase the ratio of ... workers' incomes in the primary distribution of national income."
It also called upon officials "to properly handle contradictions among the people, and to take concrete measures to secure social harmony and stability."
Zhan Jiang, journalism professor at the Beijing Foreign Studies University, said the government is unlikely to reach its own goals without wider political reform.
"Relations between workers and employers are very tense at the moment," Zhan said. "The pressure to strike is building up."
"Right now, we see a huge income disparity that is extremely unfair."
U.S.-based rights activist Liu Nianchun said the lot of Chinese workers is now much worse than it was before the beginning of economic reforms 30 years ago, when workers enjoyed long-term job security, access to healthcare, and social welfare payments.
"If things don't improve, then labor protests are likely to get more and more intense," he said.
Ming Xia, professor of politics at the City University of New York, said there is a huge amount of anger among the Chinese workforce.
"Workers' share of national wealth has been on the decline since 1983, compared with society as a whole, especially against a background of consumer price growth and inflation," Xia said.
He said the Chinese government has relied on its ability to attract foreign investors to China as a way of delivering economic growth.
"But the Chinese labor movement has been crippled ... by the removal of the right to strike from the constitution," Xia added. "There is no protection for the right to strike in China's constitution."
Reported by Yang Jiadai, Qiao Long, and Xin Yu for RFA's Mandarin service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.